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Posted in Editorials, Opinion

Charette: Support Democracy, Not So-Called “Neutrality”

December 1, 2010

By now, many of us are aware of the Swarthmore Inn Project, which, after a decade of stagnation, is finally up on its feet. However, another opposing venture has been pretty darn mobile as well—that is, some student efforts to ensure the future developer is cajoled into signing a “neutrality agreement.” Members of the Swarthmore Labor Action Project (SLAP), have vocalized a concern for workers’ rights and, echoing the modern labor movement, have translated those concerns into calls for “neutrality” and “card-check”.

Folks ought to be a little ruffled to see Student Council openly embrace this one-sided dialogue at a weekly meeting. Unfortunately, the seriousness of this antidemocratic tap-dance has been largely minimized here on campus. I assume all of us support a quality work environment. That’s not the issue at hand. No, my writing this is not some scheme on the part of corporate fat cats. Truth be told, I’m a dog person.

We’ve been fed the line that neutrality acts guard against employer/employee “fighting.” Last time I checked, Rocky Balboa doesn’t reside in the “ville”. Regardless, the debate has mostly pooh-poohed the ethical concerns and deceptive practices which cruise in the back seat of the neutrality-agreement-mobile. Under current National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) law, a union is required to file a petition with NLRB demonstrating proof, usually via “authorization cards” that at least 30 percent of the employees support a workplace union. From there, after affirming the evidence, the NLRB supervises a secret ballot election by the employees. Should union support indeed garner the most votes, then presto! The NLRB confirms the union’s legitimacy and the employer bargains with the union in terms of wages, benefits, etc. Smacks of reason, fairness, and professionalism, don’t you think?

Unfortunately for Big Labor, unionization has suffered a bit of a bulldozing in recent decades, with unions winning only about half of the elections they spearhead. Rather than examine the product they’re peddling, unionists have attempted to re-write the rules with initiatives like the dubiously titled “Employee Free Choice Act” congressional bill, neutrality agreements, and card check.

Such endeavors circumvent the traditional secret ballot procedure. In the name of “neutrality”, unions invoke a card check in which workers have their John Hancocks weaseled out of them in a public setting, often in the company of labor organizers. Card check, you see, calls for only a simple majority of employee signage, while the employer’s legal right to express his side of the story is silently contracted away under a “gag rule”. Many such agreements grant union access to the work premises during the workday, employer picketing, and access to workers’ personal contact information. If this is all in the name of “workplace fairness” and “social justice”, where’s the fairness, where’s the justice, where’s the democratic beef?

Many chains and hotel associations have voluntarily become parties to the neutrality agreement affair, typically with the rational that they are buying “labor peace” and fewer headaches for the hotel, owner, and operator. It should be noted that many large urban chains have already conceded into neutrality agreements. With SLAP’s attempts to usher neutrality agreements into the borough of Swarthmore, we are witnessing Big Labor’s politics trickle-down through the economy like a particularly potent brew of coffee. Now, as much as I enjoy strong java, I’d rather not see neutrality agreements wash ashore here in Swarthmore. I support democratic elections and dignity — for the employee and the employer. Let’s be frank: “Neutrality Agreements” sure ain’t neutral.

  • Peter ’11

    "Now, as much as I enjoy strong java, I’d rather not see neutrality agreements wash ashore here in Swarthmore."

    That's a bizarre mixed metaphor if ever I've heard one.

    Anyway, Danielle, why don't you try and meet with Adam or someone else from SLAP and see if you can come to a consensus on what might be the best course of action? I'm sympathetic to the idea that a public election is perhaps not, in many ways, preferable to a private ballot, and perhaps they'll agree. On the other hand, I think you might acknowledge that being an employer is a position of great power that could have (and has historically had) the potential for some coercion. Could you all recommend to the administration some kind of system by which employers/labor are either silenced or somehow put on equal footing, while workers could perhaps be given some sort of information about the pros/cons of unions that comes from students and professors working together to provide data that's at least a little less biased than hearing from just one or two of the opposing sides? I wasn't able to catch the recent lecture but one point she seemed to be making was that workers did not feel completely informed under either system, so maybe that's a point we can all agree on.

    Just an idea…

  • Alex ’12


    You have no citations, no statistics, no studies in this entire article. It is mostly opinion that you are stating as if it is fact. The people that I know in SLAP have done hundreds to thousands of pages of reading to determine that a Neutrality Agreement is the best choice. They generally cite studies and statistics (aka: facts) that support their viewpoint, which I can read and determine whether I trust the source. so what about this is supposed to persuade me to the other side? it's going to take a lot more than throwing around some slang and bizarre metaphors.

  • Phil Chodrow

    "Democratic beef" was perplexing to me. Otherwise, I really appreciate the time you've spent fleshing out your objection to SLAP's initiative.

    I guess one of the large points of contention which you haven't quite addressed here is whether, in fact, secret ballot elections are indeed as rife with "reason, fairness, and professionalism" as you suggest. Folks on the other end of the debate have repeatedly suggested that secret ballot elections are open to significant and damaging acts of employer coercion, and that a neutrality agreement, while not "neutral" in one sense, is nevertheless the best measure for achieving fairness in the union selection process.

    That's an important and substantive argument to make, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts here. That being said, it seems to me that Peter might have an even more promising idea: seeing if you and SLAP might be able to somehow find some middle ground, and looking for a unique solution for this case which both sides can agree to be fair. I'm not sure his specific suggestion will satisfy you (Swarthmore students and professors alike lean left, so you might still have a legitimate charge of bias). Still, it seems like a neat possibility, and one which I hope you'll investigate.


  • concerned

    I think Alex brings up a very good point here. I didn't see you at the Adrienne Eaton lecture, which was too bad. Regardless of your personal, political beliefs, her lecture was based on facts, studies, and statistics that represent the hard research that she has dedicated the last decade to doing. No way around it, she is definitely an expert on the strengths and shortcomings of neutrality agreements. As someone who is obviously quite interested in this issue, to not show up to her lecture and then offer facts that obviously fly in the face of her expertise seems rather odd.

  • Rachell Morillo ’14

    I find it disappointing to see that Swarthmore students think that in order for an op-ed to be comprehensible and attention grabbing they must speak in over-simplistic binaries and trite analogies. It would be interesting to see Danielle address the topic at hand with out painting a picture of unions as wolves disguised as sheep (one which mirrors the depiction of big business she criticizes so much).

    That being said, I agree with Concerned in saying that Danielle would have benefited greatly from attending SLAP’s event with Professor Adrienne Eaton. In particular, I think she would have seen many of the points which she brings up addressed by Prof. Eaton’s presentation.

    For example, Danielle writes, “National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) law, a union is required to file a petition with NLRB demonstrating proof, usually via “authorization cards” that at least 30 percent of the employees support a workplace union.” Prof. Eaton in her explanation of the difference between NLRB elections and Card-Check stated that NLRB law requires a percentage of employees to express interest in a workplace union. After this point, there is a period during which options are explored; in conjunction, there is also a period during which employers are known to use various anti-union techniques such as 1-on-1 and captive audience meetings with employees intimidating union supporters. Although Danielle may argue this is within their legal right to due, I think we can agree that this is not necessarily conducive to a “neutral” or “fair” workplace. Arguably one could have the neutrality agreement (which would serve as a buffer to such techniques) and not a card-check agreement, but as Prof. Eaton pointed out, this has proven to be ineffective time and time again.

    As another example, Danielle paints a picture of the card check process as one in which employees “have their John Hancocks weaseled out of them” and gag rules on the employer are put into place despite union picketing of the employer; Prof. Eaton argues that during the negotiation process for card check/neutrality agreements, employers give up the right to bash the union while unions give up the right to criticize the employers. This process is not a simple one: it is one which takes much dialogue, bargaining and time.

    I think addressing misunderstandings like this would allow many people who are still in the gray about the situation at hand to have a clearer picture of the process. This fight (again no Rocky Balboa, just activists) has been a prolonged one, but it is not one filled with “stagnation” as the above op-ed put it. Instead, the past ten years have been full of discourse and democratic processes to determine what is best for this town and this school. The feelings expressed by long-standing members of Swarthmore’s community early this semester at various town meetings showed that this has not been an easy transaction for anyone. SLAP’s attempt to ensure the Town Center West project is done effectively and justly is not new either—the initiative for worker’s rights is at least three years old: this has been anything but an “antidemocratic tap-dance.” I would urge everyone to look at this topic’s context and trajectory and not be blinded by what we think we know.

  • –nah mean

    Rachel, congratulations on being more right (the truth, not ideological kind) than Danielle will ever be!

    And Danielle, please step up your journalistic game. Who exactly is "Big Labor"? And please, tell me in detail, with facts and some history, about all those times that "many chains and hotel associations have voluntarily become part of the neutrality agreement affair." Really? Voluntarily–as in, separate from any pressure? Why? How did it go? Sounds fascinatingly "dubious"

    Unlike most people with unresearched views on campus, you seem to publish quite a bit. How frustrating for us readers!

  • Meg Long ’12

    Hi there,

    As a member of SLAP (and someone who has taken a lot of classes concerned with labor, as well as more independent research than anyone cares to really hear about), I'd be more than happy to sit down and talk about card check/neutrality with you – or anyone raising concerns, for that matter. Or if you'd like more information as to how I formed my opinion that this is the best way to allow workers a freedom to choose (via neutrality agreements, as opposed to NLRB elections), I can definitely provide that. A first step might be looking at the 2001 study "Neither Free Nor Fair," conducted by American Rights At Work. Although they are a pro-union organization, this should not invalidate solid research methodology. Similarly, I have the powerpoint from Professor Eaton's lecture, should you be interested.

    Research (and I don't think right here is the place to pull out study after study) overwhelmingly sides in favor of card check/neutrality agreements as the correct channel to create a hands-off environment to give workers the space to choose. If arguments against neutrality agreements actually stem from a dislike of unions, I think we'll have to agree to disagree. (But also keep in mind that card check neutrality doesn't guarantee a union – it only becomes a more likely possibility, largely because management intimidation is much more absent.)

    You'll have to forgive some frustration on my part. I don't want to bring emotions into this, but I feel that it's important to say that I feel as though SLAP (and myself, by extension) works really hard to provide information and hold events and to only ever back our opinions with all kinds of studies, as well as worker testaments. In response, I very rarely feel like anyone holding an opposing opinion is trying to engage our group on the same level of in-depth research and study.

    I hope that people would be interested in talking about this further. If not, SLAP can only do so much to hold educational events and write articles – as it's on everyone else to come out.

  • Meg Long ’12

    (also, from the AFL-CIO comes a short comic about the flaws of NLRB, for anyone who doesn't want to read thousands of pages and would rather look at pictures:

  • S

    Might I recommend the writing center?

    Also, @Rachell Morillo '14- I definitely agree with your last point. Blame the lack of institutional memory in an organization with a primarily transient population, but I feel like it would do a lot of swatties a lot of good to look to what's been brought up in the past.

  • clarification

    Since it's come up a couple times.

    For those who weren't at Adrienne Eaton's lecture, she did say that the strongest argument against card check/neutrality is that workers felt that there was less information. However, on a scale of 1 being too much info, 2 being just the right amount of info, and 3 being too little, workers in a CC/N setting rated just barely higher than two, as opposed to just slightly less than two with an NLRB election. She also showed that people in CC/N did not sign cards if they felt they did not have the required information, as opposed to workers being hoodwinked by a union into signing up for something they don't understand. Third, she surveyed workers a year to two years after the fact, asking them how accurate the information they received was – union information was about 70% accurate, while mgmt information was only about 40% accurate. So even if workers got more information in NLRB (from management), it was very likely wrong information.

  • Sarah Palin

    Hey there little grizzly cub Danielle,

    Keep up the good work parroting my talking points and mimicking my style, and I'll invite you onto my new TV show or up to Alaska for some quality mama-cub time!

  • Cheers!

    Alex and Rachel: Well said.

    I have a feeling that I'm the intended audience for an editorial like this. I'm fairly liberal and I think I support SLAP on this issue, but I recognize that I don't know much about labor and I have a feeling that the conservative rebuttal probably has some good points to make.

    But…awkward Rocky Balboa, fat cats, and coffee metaphors? No desire to engage with either a) the specific SLAP proposal or b) actual economic literature on the topic? It almost feels like you don't care about the issue, and just want to use the DG to soapbox for the sake of soapboxing. Which, I guess, is what we do in the comments. In any event, this reader (who, let me reiterate, is open to hearing out your argument!) would like to see you hold yourself to a higher standard of argumentation.

  • william


    Neutrality agreements have become increasingly sophisticated.Was the possibility that employees are the group that loses the most in neutrality agreements ever discussed? They are the least powerful of the relevant groups aren't they?

    Pending litigation has shed some light on interesting examples of top down organizing.(UAW vs Freightliner)These cases deal with active organizational assistance on the part of employers. In what amounts to basically a quid pro quo arrangement.Unions in exchange for the companies active assistance negotiate substantive terms of employment before they have the legal authority to do so. Contrary to what some want to believe,It can be said that unions are not purely altruistic institutions.They are no different then any other American business that operates under the weight of a balance sheet.

  • Soren Larson

    Meg and Alex-

    While those at SLAP may have done 'thousands' of pages of reading on this issue, it's possible (and even likely) that SLAP's research has explored only research completed by entities like AFL-CIO, American Rights At Work, Kate Bronfenbrenner, etc. Further, the general disposition of sociology departments in this area is hardly a secret, so it shouldn't be surprising that those at SLAP have done lots of reading and come to the conclusion that workers rights are best protected under unionization. Members of SLAP should note that the statistics produced by entities like Economic Policy Institute / American Rights at Work / etc. aren't the only ones in town, and that often studies produced by these outfits conflict with those of other, perhaps less agenda-driven orgs like the NLRB. Finally, it'd be reassuring if SLAP were to do its own empirical research, instead of relying on these think tanks whose agenda often motivates their research.


    You wrote, "her lecture was based on facts, studies, and statistics that represent the hard research that she has dedicated the last decade to doing." I wish I had been able to attend the Eaton lecture , and concede that the following would be more credible if I had. Nevertheless, I must note that I am wary of your ostensible easy acceptance of Eaton's contentions without checking her stat work yourself. There's a reason why economists have been trying to take the `con' out of econometrics for the past two decades. As we all know, numbers can be easily massaged, and we should be critical of most who use them to support grand claims. But, since I wasn't able to attend the lecture and think about what she had to say, or observe your preparation for it/response to it, I admit that this observation could be a null point.

  • Concerned

    I believe the lecture was recorded, so I'm sure you can still watch it at some point, if you're interested.

    I agree with you that numbers can, and often are, easily manipulated. However, I did not get this impression from Eaton's lecture, in part because she did not really use her numbers to "support grand claims," as you put it. Indeed, I felt that she did incorporate criticisms of neutrality, and I honestly feel that I better understand neutrality's shortcomings for her lecture. I also feel that, for understanding the relative benefits and detriments of various options, as described in her lecture, I more fully understand why neutrality is our best option. But I understand your concern on this issue. I'd be interested to know what you think if you do have an opportunity to listen to the recording.

  • Must not tell lies

    Let's be frank: lies and distortion are a shameful tactic.

    The NLRB process is far from "reason, fairness, and professionalism," as you suggest. Have you paid any attention to the evidence?

    Where's Delores Umbridge when you need her… maybe she'll show up at the Yule Ball?

  • Timothy Burke

    A bit of poking around in some literature this morning, looking for ways that all of you could convene a richer conversation, get rid of some of the ad hominems, and maybe be less beholden to a fixed idea of a single acceptable outcome might be.

    1) There's some work on comparative legal frameworks governing unionization and union recognition in different countries which seems to suggest both that US procedures are skewed in many ways towards suppressing unionization AND that even in other legal frameworks (esp. Canadian and UK) which are relatively friendly to unionization, card-check procedures are more likely to lead to union certification and secret ballots less likely. This is an interesting challenge to all of you in this debate to consider using a variety of different disciplinary frameworks. If even in a relatively friendly environment to unionization, workers in secret ballots are more likely to reject unionization, that might mean something. On the other hand, if having unions leads to better economic and social outcomes overall, maybe that's the thing to focus on.

    2. The history of American workers' attitudes towards and perceptions of unions, union leaders and unionization is really complex: conservatives who are inclined to see the marginalization of unions as evidence of popular rejection would be well-advised to look with an open mind at union suppression by government and companies, particularly at the role of vigorously anti-union government policies from 1980 onward and at the impact of globalization. But pro-union activists might want to take seriously long-standing critiques (some of them from a 'leftward' direction) of American union leadership as corrupt, elitist, anti-democratic, self-destructive and so on, and accept that this history justifiably inclines some prospective union members to wariness. It's an older book but Thomas Geoghegan's How to Be For Labor When It's Flat on Its Back is a good read (revised in 2004). (Geoghegan is very pro card-check, btw.) What American workers think about unions is also important: there seems to be some (albeit highly contested) evidence that prior perceptions of unions influence unionization outcomes more than employer misrepresentation or coercion. False consciousness explanations for those attitudes may be soothing but use them at your peril.

    3) There seems to be some work that argues that this whole debate is something of a red herring, that there are entirely different ways to handle union certification procedures that avoid some of the problems of an electoral model fought between two antagonists with opposing interests. May be worth backing up a bit and thinking about what the desired ends actually are before getting sunk too deep into a procedural mire.

    4) Different issue, not research-driven. Don't any of you find it a bit weird to be mobilizing so strongly about a project which doesn't yet exist and where there is no real employer or developer yet to actually engage, in order to get the college administration to commit to acting as a proxy agent that will demand card-check from this yet-to-exist employer on behalf of yet-to-exist employees? What would be so wrong with waiting for there to be an employer and then taking the fight directly to them? (And thus working with actual employees who might have actual views on all of this.) This would be a case where you might really not need the weight of the institution to achieve political success: I think a bunch of Swarthmore students constantly picketing an inn and restaurant would be a pretty effective goad to change policies on unionization.

    If you're asking the college to act on your behalf for a project in which it is primarily contemplating being an investor (albeit one with interests different than just making a profit from the investment), why not ask it to do so for all possible future investments? (And for all possible employees.) Ad hoc commitments that aren't part of a systematic approach tend to become weird, isolated institutional artifacts a decade or two later.

    Also: it's worth being clear right now about consequences: let's suppose that if agreement to card-check is a college-mandated precondition of any developer or employer coming into the project, and it turns out that this ensures that no developer or employer wants to come into a project whose profitability is so uncertain, is that: better than a project without card-check? Not better? Better it not be built than be built under adverse conditions for unionization? I think SLAP members can make a good case that this is exactly correct, but it's worth being clear now that this might indeed be the outcome. (A position with larger implications, also.)

  • A B

    Re: Timothy Burke

    1) From my understanding of the literature on the topic, one primary reason that "secret ballot" elections in the US are less likely to lead to union certification is due to strong employer opposition to unionization. By greatly reducing employer interference in elections, neutrality agreements help protect workers' legal right to organize. Nonetheless, you hit the nail on the head when you write that the focus should be on leading to better economic and social outcomes. For an example of such improved outcomes, there's quite a bit of evidence that unions reduce wage inequality both in the workplace as well as in society. Another thing they do, is shift the distribution of a firm's profits to be shared more evenly with workers (and thereby reduce the employers/investors' share), but proponents of unions generally favor equity over profit-maximization of employers.

    2) I agree that workers' attitudes and beliefs are an important factor to consider. Ultimately, under the implementation of a neutrality agreement, both employers and unions agree beforehand to respect the decision of workers, whatever that may be.

    3) If you would like to propose a better, feasible alternative to a neutrality agreement,I am all ears. The desired end is that workers' rights will be protected, and in particular their right to a fair workplace, which includes the right to organize.

    4) The whole point of neutrality agreements is to promote peaceful labor relations and avoid stressful, disruptive strikes and picketing. The latter threatens a business much more than taking a progressive, proactive and peaceful stance. The College has the most leverage now to ensure the principles of fairness embodied in a neutrality agreement before a development deal is signed. Furthermore, in the hotel industry, neutrality agreements are implemented BEFORE construction begins almost 100% of the time. Finally, the College is exclusively meeting with one developer and actively searching for an operator after the last one recently bailed. This project is not so far off from becoming a concrete reality, especially if the economy continues to rebound.

    5) To my knowledge, this is the first time in Swarthmore's history that an outside, for-profit company will be building and operating a business on Swarthmore's property. You have a good idea, to ask the College to agree to neutrality for all future investments. This current ask, however, does not preclude its systematic institutionalization later on.

    6) If a particular development firm decides not to build a project because it refuses to adhere to Swarthmore's Quaker values of worker justice and social responsibility, our community is better off without them. Plenty of hotel developers and operators routinely enter into neutrality agreements, even for smaller inns/hotels such as this. With all of its resources and hardworking, intelligent staff/admin, the College is perfectly capable of finding a socially responsible employer. The college should promise to do that before it's too late.

  • Think my heart is in Alaska

    Palin, please keep frequenting our message boards! <3<3<3 We heart you here at Swarthmore College, PA.

  • Timothy Burke


    On 1), I'm noting that there's a comparative literature that appears to suggest that secret ballots typically produce lower rates of union certification compared to card-check even in countries without the particular history of union suppression or employer intimidation that we have in the U.S. The spread between the two models is smaller than in the U.S. elsewhere, however. This suggests to me at least that there's something involved in the comparison that goes beyond employer intimidation or NLRB mismanagement.

  • A B

    What factor do you think that something is? What's your interpretation of it? Of course, with any analogy it's important to keep the social and political context in mind.

    As you point out, these findings highlight that employer intimidation is not the only factor, though most of the literature provides evidence that it is the key factor in decreased unionization in the U.S.

  • Soren Larson

    AB wrote:

    "If a particular development firm decides not to build a project because it refuses to adhere to Swarthmore's Quaker values of worker justice and social responsibility, our community is better off without them."

    First, it should be noted that AB doesn't engage in Burke's question as to what the college should do if no developer or employer wants to come into a project with a neutrality agreement precondition. Given AB's response, we're left to assume that AB believes that no project is better than a project without card-check.

    But this is an elitist view that deserves the fiercest contempt. Suppose no developer will proceed with the project precisely because of the card-check precondition. AB says this is fine and that the community is better off without engaging with these socially irresponsible, non-Quaker-value-propagators firms. This view is despicable and elitist because, while sitting in the ivory tower and knowing better, AB has effectively decided no jobs are better than workers having been offered the opportunity to decide if *they* want to work at an inn at which unionization is not relatively easier to establish.

    To make things worse, AB uses hyperbole like, "before it's too late" and, again, and seizes ownership and purports mutual exclusivity of phrases like "social responsibility" and his side of the argument.

  • Soren Larson

    …mutual exclusivity of phrases like "social responsibility" and the *opposing* side of the argument.

  • Alt

    What about an alternative to unions that guarantees protections for workers? There are definite benefits to unions (most of which are mentioned above, so I won't repeat them) but there are also drawbacks (also mentioned above). I do like the idea of guaranteeing protections for workers and not making assumptions about the College's good faith, but I don't like the idea of assuming that a neutrality agreement will be the panacea (see note re: assumptions). Is there an alternative to unions that can guarantee workers rights?

  • Noah Marks

    A B–

    It is my understanding that in the not-so-distant past (1980s), the dinning services of the College were run by a private subcontractor which presumably was for-profit. Obviously, we have moved away from that model and there are 30 years of history and politics between here and there, but it is important to note that the Inn would not be completely unprecedented. Furthermore, I know that the company that provides workers who cut our grass in the fall and spring is an outside company.

    It would be interesting for SLAP to look into those instances of outsiders on college property, which could bolster their arguments or at least provide relevant context.

    Noah Marks '11